When should you be aggressive about passive voice?

dontdeadLike any other writer that has the grammar and punctuation tools active while using Word, I’m sure you’ve seen the annoying blue squiggly line with the warning “passive voice, consider revising” message pop up in your editing. Most of the time (for me at least) I did not elect to phrase things that way; it just sort of happened. I don’t consciously think of verb tense when I write. It’s like driving into your day job; you go on auto-pilot. In retrospect, you may not even recall stopping for any traffic lights along the way (which is a bit frightening).

Recently, I was helping beta read a work in progress for a friend. The subject of passive voice came up. I admit I’m hard pressed to understand why it’s considered a no-no. Like “-ly” adverbs, it also seems to get a bad rap. Where’d this animosity to the tense come from?

From what I can tell, this seems to be symptomatic of native English speakers. In the US, native English speakers learn from an early age that sentence structure has a 1) subject, 2) verb and, sometimes, 3) an object. Something does something to something else.

Consider this example:

The zombie ate Negan’s face.

Subject:               The zombie

Verb:                     ate

Object:                 Negan’s face

Aside from being hopefully prophetic, it’s pretty straightforward in terms of tone and it moves things along in the action category without a lot of pondering. It’s easy to read. This format is also common to see in non-fiction and in other areas where concise communication is imperative.

Consider the same thing shown in passive tense:

Negan’s face was eaten by the zombie.

Aside from sounding a little bit like Yoda, you can see what’s going on. Negan still got what was coming to him, but the action gets dragged down a bit. The emphasis is changed. It causes questions to bubble up for the reader. Depending on your goal as a fiction writer, this may not be what you want. Automatically, as a reader, my brain starts generating questions: what’s the important thing here? The zombie? Negan’s ruined face? What kind of zombie? (I think you get the picture.)

Need a way to test if you’re using passive voice? Try this: (I’ve seen this floating around on Pinterest a lot.)

Try to add the phrase “by zombies” after the verb in your sentence. If it makes sense, then your sentence is in the passive voice.

Here’s an example.

Original:

 The Republican National Convention was overrun.

Now add “by zombies”.

 The Republican National Convention was overrun by zombies.

Yep! You’ve got passive voice. From there, you can rearrange the structure to the active tense to sharpen things up.

Here’s a WikiHow article on how to fix passive voice: (I like it because it’s pretty short and straight forward.)

http://www.wikihow.com/Fix-Passive-Voice

Used the right way, passive voice can be very useful to change the focus of your subject. Maybe you don’t know who or what completed the action, and you want the reader to feel that sense of mystery too. So, it does have a place. Doled out in particular areas, it can be useful.

But if you want your prose to zing along without bogging down the works with lots of questions, try to avoid it.